Jim Kenyon: Co-op Misses the Big Picture

Wednesday, June 17, 2015
It’s not as if we needed another example of how thoughtless the management at the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society can be, but just in case there were any doubts, here’s something I stumbled upon:

On Tuesday, eight days after Caren Giaccone — who worked in the deli department at the Lebanon Co-op for 18 years — was shown the door, I stopped by the supermarket in Centerra Marketplace.

I was surprised to find a photo of Giaccone tacked top row and center to the large bulletin board behind the deli counter that the Co-op uses to promote its deli staff.

I’m not an expert in customer or employee relations, but leaving up a portrait of a longtime — and now former — employee for more than a week for everyone to see seems insensitive.

Whether it was intentional or a simple oversight is sort of irrelevant, said John Vogel, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business who teaches about ethics and social responsibility, when I brought it up to him. “The best companies do all the little things right,” he said.

Upper management was in such a hurry to sever ties with Giaccone that it shut off her employee discount card three days before informing her that she no longer had a job. Giaccone was in the checkout line at the Co-op in White River Junction when a cashier broke the news that her card, good for 20 percent off groceries, had been rejected.

The Co-op won’t say why Giaccone was axed, saying that personnel matters must remain confidential. After I wrote about what had happened, the Co-op responded with an “important message” on its website. “The Co-op is a compassionate employee-centered employer that values its employees and supports them in many ways,” the website stated.

That said, maybe Giaccone’s picture still being on display wasn’t a cold-hearted blunder after all. Had management come to its senses and re-instated her?

Shortly before noon, I headed for the other end of the store to manager Bob Kazakiewich’s office. The lights were off, and nobody was home.

Which pretty much sums up the Co-op’s top management for a while now.

Giaccone, who turns 65 next month, hoped to work a couple of more years before retiring. She’s the third longtime, older employee who was making union noise to lose her job at the Lebanon Co-op in the last year.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 549, has been reaching out to the Co-op’s 350 or so rank-and-file workers to see if they’re interested in organizing. Before I wrote about her dismissal, Giaccone told me that she knew why management no longer wanted her around. “It’s my age, and the union,” she said.

Co-op Board Chairwoman Margaret Drye, who is always kind enough to take my calls, said, “The Co-op takes its obligations and responsibilities regarding unions very seriously.”

Last month, the Co-op’s 11 board members participated in a training course to make sure they are complying with the National Labor Relations Act. “The management and the board have a neutral position on unions,” said Drye. “It’s the employees’ decision.”

Co-op members, more than 21,000 total, also must decide how involved — if at all — they want to get in company matters. A “mass protest” is planned for Saturday at high noon at the Lebanon Co-op, one of four food stores in the Co-op chain. “Who Will Stand With Caren?” is being billed as a way to show support for Giaccone, who shortly after voicing her concerns at a staff meeting about the way things were going in her department suddenly found herself unemployed.

The protest and an organizing session to be held at the Norwich Public Library tonight at 5:30 p.m. are the work of Concerned About the Co-op, a grass-roots group that got started last summer.

Renee Risingsong, of White River Junction, is helping put together tonight’s meeting. She stopped shopping at Co-op stores after John Boutin and Dan King were abruptly fired last June without being given a reason.

While it’s a nice gesture, I’m not sure a protest, barring a massive turnout, will do Giaccone much good. I got the sense that Risingsong, who has worked in a research lab at Dartmouth’s medical school for more than 30 years, wasn’t convinced, either.

The Co-op’s management team and governing board are banking that “enough people really don’t care about the issues, and will continue to shop there,” she said. “Maybe they’re right. It’s going to take more than a protest to get management to listen to us. It’s going to take a boycott, but I don’t know if there are enough people in the community willing to do that.”

On Tuesday, after not finding anyone in the manager’s office at the Lebanon Co-op, I returned to the deli counter a few minutes later. The photo of Giaccone had been taken down. (I suspect someone in management might have spotted me taking a picture of the bulletin board with my iPhone.)

Instead of featuring the photos of 18 employees, the bulletin board was down to 17.

Here one minute, gone another. That’s the way the Co-op rolls these days.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.

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